Read about the world of baseball statistics for just a while and its parallel to our data-driven present will jump out at you. Forget parallel, baseball stats ride on the stream of information technology.
I am particularly interested in the conflict between what’s quantifiable and what isn’t. Nate Silver describes the struggle in The Signal and The Noise. “Statheads can have their biases too”, he writes of the data obsessed. “One of the most pernicious ones is to assume that if something cannot be easily quantified, it doesn’t matter.”
So what can we do to solve that?
One way is to make the unquantifiable quantifiable through technological escalation. Take Pitch f/x, “a system of three-dimensional cameras that have now been installed at every major-league stadium. Pitch f/x can measure not just how fast a pitch travels – that has been possible for years with radar guns – but how much it moves, horizontally and vertically, before reaching the plate.”
Pitchers can be measured in a way that was once thought impossible to quantify. Imagine how this could be used in practice, honing a pitcher’s skills in such minute, microscopic ways.
It makes one wonder where all this escalation leads to. According to Silver, as far as baseball goes, “we’re not far from a point where we might have a complete three-dimensional recording of everything that takes place on a baseball field.” Silver further mentions how “new technology will not skill scouting”, the talent evaluation of prospective players, “but it may change its emphasis toward”, again, “the things that are even harder to quantify and where the information is more exclusive, like a player’s mental tools.”
But there’s another way to get at the unquantifiable, a way that does not rely on a technological arms race to read people’s minds. “The key”, Nate Silver writes with regards to baseball statistics and forecasting, “is to develop tools and habits so that you are more often looking for ideas and information in the right places.”
The same can be said in regards to technological ventures.
Companies like Couchsurfing and e180 are focused on looking in the right places, not technological escalation, to expand on what we can quantify with our data. Let’s take a look at the two aforementioned examples.
Couchsurfing is a hospitality and social networking service where people can coordinate travel and lodgings. How do they measure how effective their product is? Tristan Harris, co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, describes how they do so in various speaking engagements. Below is from a transcript of one of his TED talks (here):
“Let’s say you take two people who meet up, and they take the number of days those two people spent together, and then they estimate how many hours were in those days — how many hours did those two people spend together? And then after they spend that time together, they ask both of them: How positive was your experience? Did you have a good experience with this person that you met? And they subtract from those positive hours the amount of time people spent on the website, because that’s a cost to people’s lives. Why should we value that as success? And what you were left with is something they refer to as ‘net orchestrated conviviality,’ or, really, just a net ‘Good Times’ created. The net hours that would have never existed, had Couchsurfing not existed.”
Positive hours spent together – Hours spent on site = net ‘Good Times’. Such a formula does not require much but speaks volumes. It is a testament to Couchsurfing adjusting themselves to search for ideas and information in the right places.
Then there’s e180, an eLearning and event-based company. Their main product is Braindates. As Startupfest describes it, Braindates is an “in-person peer-to-peer learning and networking experience”, a “platform and method for collaborative learning and networking to help you seek and find connections with others in a variety of interests and areas of expertise.” (Watching a video of it unfolding describes it just as well)
Their product connects people in-person through a technological interface. The power of their product is in those connections, so that makes measurement quite simple – how many braindates occurred? (In 2015, for instance, they recorded over 1500 braindates) It also allows them to access heart-felt stories about how Braindates helped people. Many of those kind of testimonials are on their site. Like Couchsurfing, e180 searches for ideas and information in the right places, where sincere human connection takes place.
This is not to denigrate technical innovation. Such fields, like deep learning, are full of admirable pursuits undergone by admirable people. We cannot forget, however, that an equally attainable and effective avenue exists.
You just have to look in the right places.